Professor passionate about snow

By By Clayton Norlen and By Clayton Norlen

By Clayton Norlen

Thomas Painter has had his 100th birthday planned for a couple of years now.

He can see it so clearly in his mind you would think he is describing something that has already happened.

“There’s that ideal spot or vision in your mind where you go (on your 100th birthday); mine has always been set in the spring, with clear skies interacting with the snow,” Painter, a professor in the geography department, said. “And that is why I study what I do — snow.”

And it’s no surprise Painter constantly has snow on his mind.

Painter became a professor at the geography department in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences this summer. A former researcher at the National Snow and Ice Center, Painter now teaches U students about snow hydrology, which is the study of water resources from snow and melting snow.

“We’re happy to be here and to be a part of the academic community,” Painter said. “From my first interview it has been very refreshing.”

But coming to campus was only a step toward a familiar sight for Painter, who began his undergraduate career at the U more than 20 years ago with the intent of pursuing a degree in mathematics. He took up skiing during his college career as a hobby, like many students here.

“It’s funny to be back. Arguably one of this state’s greatest resources is our snow — skiing, agriculture, water resources, hydroelectricity and the aesthetic beauty come from the snow,” Painter said.

During his first semester, although Painter did well enough in mathematics, he invested the majority of his time in rock climbing and skiing, which was a disappointment to his father, a mathematician, whom Painter regularly skied with.

Painter’s current research stemmed from a day of skiing with his father. The conversations and questions about snow that took place during that particular day later turned into a hypothesis for his research.

While Painter was skiing, he noticed a dusty haze covering the surface of the snow. Painter scraped a square foot of snow clean from dust and after returning later in the day, Painter noticed that the snow surrounding the dust-free area had melted slower than the dust covered snow surrounding it, which was about three inches lower.

The dust acts as an insulator and causes snow to melt faster. The trend is making snow pack disappear earlier and has potential to hurt agriculture, shorten the ski season and disrupt the generation of hydroelectric power, Painter said.

The majority of research Painter conducted took place in Southwest Colorado, but he said dust coverage is just as big of an issue here. He said that a majority of the dust is coming from mining operations being conducted in the Four Corners areas, but dust has traveled from drought-ridden areas of the world as far as China and the Gobi desert.

“The stuff (Painter is) doing is so different and ground-breaking, he’s getting a lot of attention,” said Harvey Miller, chair of the geography department. “Climate change will have a big impact on the snow that is so important to Utahns. We’re a major university housed in the mountains. Given this importance, it’s key to have a specialist like Tom on staff.”

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U professor Tom Painter, who teaches about snow hydrology, found that layers of settled covering snow cause the snow to melt faster.